From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Myth 3: Everything we know about wolves applies to dogs, too.
We’ve already seen a number of reasons why this isn’t true. The dog’s ancestor eventually became a dog because he left the ecological niche his ancestor may have shared with the wolf’s ancestors more than 500,000 years ago. The domestic dog evolved in a totally different environment than the wolf. Their genetic similarity means about as much (or as little) as our similarity to various apes means.
But there is more you need to know. Even if we could apply what we know about wolves to dogs, the fact is that we don’t know very much about wolves. This may surprise you. Indeed, much has been published about wolves – books, articles, documentaries on television – and most of it in such an authoritative tone. Surely we must know all about them? The trouble is that most of what people pretend to know about wolves is based either on fantasy and speculation, or on insufficient data and poorly designed research.
Mankind has been waging a war of annihilation against the wolf for hundreds of years now, because modern man always viewed the wolf as a competitor in the hunt and a danger for his cattle. There may have been a time when the wolf wasn’t scared of humans, but that was long before we develop writing, let alone science. By the time we decided to study the wolf, this animal had become so shy of us that it was almost impossible to get a glimpse of him in his natural habitat. This is, first of all, because by that time there were already damned few wolves left to study. And second of all, the ones that did survive us had learned to melt away into the forest the instant they heard or smelled us, still do. It has been almost impossible, for more than a hundred years now, to even see a wild wolf, let alone study his behavior – except the behavior of fleeing from a threat to his life.
So wolves do their utter best not to let themselves be observed by humans in the wild, while science demands that conclusions be based on observations. Scientists puzzled for awhile, then came up with a solution of their own. Once in awhile they manage to shoot a wolf with a tranquilizer dart, after which they put a radio collar around his neck and release him to rejoin his pack. After that, the scientists can locate the group of wolves by following the signal the collared wolf is transmitting. What they generally do is go out in an airplane and fly around in the hope of picking up a signal. Some days they are lucky. They locate the wolves and try to follow the group, watching the wolves’ behavior from the air. However, there is a problem with this. As soon as the airplane was invented, people, as usual, abused this technology. They immediately began to kill wolves from the air. At this point, the wolf has had almost a hundred years’ time to learn that the sound of an airplane is a signal of death. Wolves who hear an airplane do not go hang out on open terrain and display all kinds of natural behavior for you. They head for the cover of the forest as quick as they can. Yet again, the only behavior the scientist sees is flight behavior. So Discovery Channel may make it look as if you can just walk into the woods and film a bunch of wolves from close by, but this isn’t really how it works. The shots you see on TV are often the product of long and careful searching and tracking, and then filmed with telescopic lenses the size of your arm. They are pieces of luck and the result of enormous patience. Lots of people who research wild wolves spend years just finding and analyzing scats (wolf poop) without ever getting a glimpse of a real, live wolf.
Because of this, most of the published research on wolves has been done on captive wolves. Scientists gather together whatever wolves are, for some reason, available, and they house the wolves in a pen somewhere. Under the best of circumstances, the enclosure may be a couple of square miles. The wolves are then fed daily. Scientists can settle back and observe what the animals do, since the animals can’t escape them anymore. This is, of course, a highly artificial situation. First of all, the wolves behave while being watched by their jailer. This means we watch them under heightened stress and have no idea what they’d do if a human weren’t around. Secondly, it gives us no idea what the wolves would be doing if they had to go get their own food instead of hanging out all day with nothing much to do. Finally, the scientist has in fact taken a bunch of arbitrarily selected total strangers and shut them up in an unnaturally small amount of space, and is forcing them to live with each other in this small space for the duration of their lives whether they like it (and each other) or not.
This is contrary to all natural circumstances. There are a few things we do know for sure about wolves from the few glimpses people have gotten of them living free in the forests. In the wild, a group of wolves travels a territory far too large for any human to enclose. Traveling is the main thing they do, filling their days with finding food. A natural pack is not a collection of strangers. A natural pack is a family, whose members know each other from birth. These family members stay together voluntarily, and each and every one of them can leave at will if he doesn’t like it anymore. They can also leave to seek out a mate and form their own family. They do not have to stay together no matter what, anymore than you have to live with your own parents forever.
You won’t learn much about the natural behavior of wolves by jailing a group of strangers on a tiny surface area and watching them be bored there, except maybe that they are so tolerant and social that they still don’t kill each other. Dr. L. David Mech, just about the greatest living authority on wolves, put it in a nutshell with these words: ‘Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps.
Even where we can get a glimpse of wolf life in the wild, we are now watching a species whose habitat has been mostly destroyed. Food is now much more scarce for them than it was a hundred years ago. So is living space. So even then, we are watching wolves whose behavior has been influenced by our presence, which has caused them a lot of problems.
Fact: The dog is not a wolf. If you want to know about dogs, you have to study dogs. But aside from this, and whether or not you could apply knowledge about wolves to dogs, the fact is that we don’t have much knowledge about wolves in the first place. The stories that are told about them are hunters’ stories and jailers’ stories – basically all nonsense, based on myths, fantasy, imagination, speculation, projection, lies and/or poorly designed research; or by watching them behave in a habitat that is decaying and disappearing right under their feet. It is no longer possible to study how wolves behave without some kind of human influence interfering in the picture.
- Mech, LD, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1970 (8th ed 1995).
- Mech, LD, Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77: 1196-1203.
- Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Home Page. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/alstat/intro.htm(Version 16MAY2000).
- Mowat, F. Never Cry Wolf; The Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves,McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1963.